Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has been a central political figure in the past year. His opposition to Narendra Modi being projected as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s face in 2014 led to the split in a 17-year old alliance. Mr. Kumar has waged a persistent battle to redefine regional backwardness. A day after the Raghuram Rajan committee declared Bihar as the second least-developed state, meriting assistance, Mr. Kumar spoke exclusively to The Hindu in Patna on a range of national and state-level issues, weaving in his broader political principles and current strategies.

Let us begin with national politics. There is a move towards a Presidential-style contest in a parliamentary system like India. Do you think it will work?

It cannot succeed. It may become convenient for the media, and easy for people to have conversations around it. But India is too complex. Each constituency has its dynamics. The parliamentary system is settled, and this is not the time to play around with it. India is also a multi-party democracy, not a two-party system. The era of one-party dominating the national scene has long gone. Neither Congress nor BJP are present in every nook and corner of the country. Congress has moved towards an alliance system at the centre in the past two terms. BJP has grown in some states, but they do not have a pan-India presence and need allies. If you just had two parties all over the country, and others had no impact, then it would be different. But in this era of multiplicity of parties, it is not compatible. There are many factors – party, ideology, MPs, and ultimately, you need a majority in parliament. The efforts to engineer a presidential-type contest will fail.

On corporate-media nexus

You come from the socialist strand of Indian politics. Do you sense a growing role of corporates in the run-up to the 2014 elections?

This is true. Corporates have entered political discourse. Corporates were apolitical earlier, but now we can see a politicisation of corporates. For its interests, it is speaking in favor of an individual. This trend was not there in the past. And the advantage of that was that democracy reached the grassroots, the weakest sections and marginalised. The parliamentary system enabled power to reach those in villages, the poor. Their rights mattered. But there is an effort to introduce a new influence against that. But it won’t succeed. Ultimately, it is one person, one vote.

There is also a growing corporatisation of media. By and large, the media – barring a few papers – are either becoming corporate or going into their hands. What is appearing in the media is not a reflection of the ground reality. The kind of freedom journalists enjoyed in reporting and analyzing seems to have diminished, and there is an attempt to orchestrate a particular kind of environment. And this will affect institutions negatively. Democracy is about institutions. Independent media is an institution, and if they get influenced, project choices and wishes of some individuals as the popular will, there can be temporary confusion. It will appear like there is a wave, but if you go to the true masses, and listen to them, then you will encounter a different reality.

Would you say there is unprecedented religious polarisation in North India?

There is an effort to engineer polarisation, to create an atmosphere, and orchestrate it. But it is not that polarisation is happening. It is not there on the ground. There is a smoke-screen.

On politics of identity

In the last two decades, identity politics has primarily manifested itself through assertion of marginalised castes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. But is religion going to trump caste this time?

Religion and caste will remain. Within our larger identity of being Indians, these identities will continue. But we have tried to move away from these categories, and create an identity of sub-nationalism. To strengthen the country, you have to strengthen all regions. Only if all regions progress, there will be stability and growth in the country. These identities will not cease to exist, but will get weaker. Here, we have tried to instill a sense of Bihari pride, and that has weakened caste and religious identity to some extent. But there is an orchestrated move to revive the other identities. But the good sign is that there is an inherent national identity in the consciousness of people, and sub-nationalism will become stronger. People will come together for different causes. Other identities will get subsumed within that. We connected the struggle for Bihar’s rights with pride. We want to make a Bihar so that it will be a badge of honor to be called a Bihari. Large masses of people from any caste or religion, by and large, want development and peace. But some influential sections – who are not worried about the future; who already have everything – try to create problems. It is their conspiracy, their past-time because they do not get affected. They could be corporates, or those at the forefront of extreme identity politics. The poorest connects with the Bihar identity, and that inspires us to work.

You spoke of national identity. There is an effort to project a kind of belligerent nationalism which questions loyalty of Indian Muslims.

That is quite different. I am speaking of the Indian nationalism, born of the notion of unity in diversity. There are others who don’t believe in Indian nationalism, they believe in identity nationalism. How can it be nationalism which discriminates against people who are citizens in one’s own country? How can nationalism be built on suspicion? Nations are built on trust, cooperation, and respect for diversity. This was shaped during the freedom struggle, by leaders during the post-independence era. It incorporated equal respect for all religions, and provision of special opportunities for those who are backward in order to create a level-playing field. This is the true essence of nationalism, not that which treats our own people as second-class citizens.

You were in alliance for 17 years with precisely the forces you are attacking on these grounds. It is during your reign that RSS and BJP got an opportunity to expand. How can you distance yourself now?

17 years ago, we allied to prevent a split in the votes against the then ruling party. The people of Bihar eventually chose us. But we never compromised on basic issues. They benefited from it too. But that was not divisive politics. It was developmental politics. They tried to change that, and introduce divisive politics, and our relationship broke on that count. We did not walk out suddenly. We kept reminding them of the 1998 and 1999 promises, on the basis of which the governments were formed in Delhi. They began thinking that Congress is so unpopular right now that the moment was ripe to impose their agenda, with the help of corporates. I became careful a year ago, and put some conditions about what is not acceptable. The current propaganda may have some impact, but it will go cold soon. We have faith in our principles. Some people may be aggressive today, but they won’t go beyond a certain stage once the designs of divisive politics get exposed.

On Special Status and allies

Let us look forward. Now that the Rajan committee has declared Bihar the second least developed state, is there a ground for alliance with the Congress?

We have reached this stage because of the battle for special status. We had said change the yardstick, and that there needed to be a paradigm shift in economic policy for development. We raised issues of Bihar and other backward states. There is now an indication of that paradigm shift. We would have been happier if per-capita income was taken as a parameter, but they took per-capita expenditure and consumption. But still, they have divided the states into three categories, and decided to adopt a different approach for least-developed. You gave certain states special status under special circumstances, gave them tax concession, and provided assistance. This was our demand, this is what we want. The principle to develop the least developed, to help industrialise such states, to provide central assistance has been recognised. The basic policy is that there should be a strategy to help backward states reach the national mean; this was my demand. I asked revisit it. They revisited it, and if they had not accepted it in principle, why would the Finance Minister, with the PM’s approval, put it in the public domain. So this is a step forward.

Precisely because they taken a step forward to meet your substantive demand, and to prevent a split of the ‘secular votes’, will you ally with Congress?

We will think about it. We have not thought about it so far. We have party programmes in October. Everyone is assessing their prospects. Let us see how the situation evolves. We will see the mood in our rank and file. Our cadre is enthusiastic, but this does not get reflected in the media because we do not show-off.

On the Muslim vote

Will the Muslim vote get divided between Lalu Prasad and you?

Why will it get divided? What has Laluji done substantively? He just kept himself in power, but what did he do for the people? The graveyard land used to be captured; I began a policy of fencing it and over half the graveyards are now fenced. I addressed their issues of education, health, employment. We have given land for Aligarh Muslim University (in Kishengunj). We have supported schools and madrasas, and run a campaign for their education, to bring them into the mainstream. We have encouraged girl’s education in all communities. What did he do?

He provided them security, and says there were no riots during his period.

There were communal disturbances during his time. This is rubbish. There have been no riots during my time. In one place, there was an effort to incite tensions. But we imposed a curfew, and within a few hours, normalcy was restored. Do people feel more secure now or then? There was no security then, be it for minorities or others. People had to come home by 7. Now, there is no such constraint for anyone, be it a Hindu or a Muslim. He can claim nothing. He took votes in their name, but he did nothing for those classes for whom he claimed to speak. Did he provide education to them? If girls today on cycles are going to school, it has spread for everyone irrespective of community. If roads are being constructed, it is for everyone. People were not able to go the public health system then; it did not work at all. So who lost out the most – the poor, and the Muslims because they are the poorest. What did he do? This is a misnomer. He is like an event, he gives you bytes, and he gives you visuals. It is like a myth. We speak less and work more. We have worked for everyone.